The ASPCA filed a federal lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) on Monday, May 15, stating the agency’s refusal to waive substantial fees associated with a 2015 ASPCA request for documents concerning pet ownership restrictions in select public housing units is unlawful.
The ASPCA suit argues the organization is entitled to these documents, which were requested under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), free of charge under FOIA’s public interest provision since the documents would be used to educate supporters and the interested public about policies that could impact pet ownership for thousands of HUD tenants nationwide. The lawsuit follows repeated waiver denials by HUD on the grounds that the ASPCA lacks the “ability to distribute this information to a reasonably broad audience of persons interested in the subject.”
The ASPCA’s extensive research on pet homelessness has found that lack of affordable, pet-friendly housing is a consistent contributor to animal relinquishments. The ASPCA works to educate lawmakers, animal welfare professionals and the public on the need for housing policies that keep pets and people together.
But if the ASPCA—with more than two million supporters across the country and as one of the nation’s largest and best-known animal welfare organizations—is deemed incapable of reaching a wide enough audience of citizens concerned about animal welfare, it’s hard to imagine any organization that could meet HUD’s FOIA standards.
Demanding thousands of dollars in fees to fulfil FOIA requests from public interest organizations who should qualify for fee waivers, makes it unreasonably difficult for nonprofits to access vital government documents—including information animal welfare advocates need to carry out their missions. The ASPCA’s lawsuit is important to not only maintaining our own advocacy and education efforts, but to preserving the ability of all public-interest organizations to use the FOIA process to gain access to critical records.
The lawsuit comes after the federal government has shown increased reluctance to make its records available to the public, including the USDA’s decision earlier this year to remove inspection documents of federally regulated animal facilities from its website. As a result, FOIA requests are becoming increasingly important to ensuring government transparency and accountability.